As he was being introduced to speak during a conservation tour of Coahoma County, Mississippi, Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, looked like an athlete warming up on the sidelines before a big game. He bounced up and down on his tip toes and shook his head from side to side.
The guy definitely doesn’t act like a Washington, D.C. bureaucrat. You get the idea he doesn’t think like one either.
White spoke glowingly of the conservation practices presented on the tour, which was organized by the Conservation Technology Information Center and Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management. Attendees – including representatives from environmental groups – saw agricultural reservoirs for conserving surface water and reducing dependence on groundwater, tailwater recovery systems, riparian buffers to prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss and cropland that had been converted to wildlife habitat.
During lunch at Mill Creek Gin north of Clarksdale, White didn’t back off the 800 pound gorilla in the corner either. How do you balance the need for clean water and clean air in the midst of budgetary cutbacks and a burgeoning world population?
“We’re supposed to have 9 billion people by 2050,” White said. “With that 9 billion people, we have to have a 70 percent increase in food production. How are we going to increase food production by 70 percent without trashing the environment? How are we going to do it sustainably, so we have clean air and clean water and a healthy environment, and where we can make room for the wildlife?”
White said three factors compound the issue for government agencies working in conservation. “There will be less money, fewer people working and the same amount or more work. We will accomplish this through increased partnerships and by increased leveraging of dollars (several agencies pooling dollars for a common purpose). We’re going to get more boots on the ground. It’s not necessarily going to always be a federal foot in that boot, but it’s going to be a boot that’s trained and highly qualified to carry out the mission.”
White is concerned that too much government regulation will hurt conservation objectives.
One example is the possible listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species. “If the sage grouse were to be listed, it would effectively shut down western ranchers from working public lands.
“All the conservation in the world won’t do us any good if the men and women who operate our land and produce our food and fiber cannot stay in business. There has to be common sense, it has to be economically doable, and it’s got to give good value to the taxpayer. We can achieve all those things.”
White’s enthusiasm for his job is catching. At the same time, balancing conservation with the needs of 9 billion people while juggling a dwindling pile of cash is indeed a sobering thought.